Innovation: to sandbox or not to sandbox?

Giff Constable innovation

Adrian Howard has a great talk on enterprise innovation up from the last Lean UX conference. In it, he is very down on sandboxed innovation groups. I actually both agree and disagree with him.

I think sustaining innovation must be done within existing operational groups, and agree with many of the things Adrian recommends: training on customer development and related ways of thinking, balanced teams that add more “makers” and people who actually talk to real customers, carving out more time for experiments, and being more forgiving of experiments that don’t work.

However, I don’t think that will actually solve for disruptive innovation, or help a company being disrupted figure out how to reinvent itself.

For disruptive innovation, I think a sandbox is absolutely critical, albeit with communication with and respect for the rest of the organization. Existing operational groups are too far in the weeds of what the business currently is. They need to keep the revenue coming in the door. They need different kinds of planning. And critically, they also will not be able to bear the inevitable failure rates that comes with more radical innovation.

I’m talking about emotion.  Most people are not, and should not be, entrepreneurs. It takes a certain kind of crazy and and a deep amount of resilience.

Adrian is absolutely right that a sandboxed innovation team should not be viewed as a savior or “sexy”. Hell no. They are going to fail most of the time. Their ideas will seem dumb (until they are not).  It will take years to figure out which ideas are actually worthwhile. Culturally, it is far better off starting out with massive humility, rather than the opposite.